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  • The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port
  • Sebastian R. Prange
The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port Nancy Um Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009 xiii + 270 pp., $75.00 (cloth), $30.00 (paper)

In their attempt to formulate alternatives to traditional analytical categories steeped in often anachronistic conceptions of rigid territorialities, studies taking seas as their framework of inquiry have espoused the spatial turn more eagerly than most other fields. The Indian Ocean in particular has emerged as a topos of proliferating spatial reconfigurations as its history has come to be increasingly conceptualized in terms of overlapping circuits, multidimensional networks, and interconnected hubs and nodes. It is a testament to the great vivacity with which this intellectual project has been carried forward (and, correspondingly, to the rate at which spatial metaphors have multiplied) that it comes as somewhat of a relief to pick up a book on Indian Ocean history that deals with concrete spaces: the patterns of urban settlement, the design of merchant houses, the logistics of marketplaces. Such is the remit of Nancy Um’s The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port, a work that directly and importantly benefits from its author’s training in art history. Yet Um faced a considerable obstacle in bringing these skills to bear on her subject — the port city she sets out to study lies largely in ruins. Mocha, on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, remains inhabited, but its historic port and commercial quarter are almost entirely reduced to rubble. Remarkably, the reliance on a more comparative approach, as well as the widening of her study’s source base that this loss necessitated, ultimately renders its conclusions all the more significant.

The historic port of Mocha lingers in popular memory through its identification with coffee, for which it continues to stand as an eponym. However, Um swiftly disabuses her readers of this tenacious association: the inland town of Bayt al-Faqih farther north on Yemen’s Tihama plain was the true coffee entrepôt for which Mocha along with other coastal cities served as maritime outlets. The characterization of Mocha as Yemen’s coffee capital, itself a function of myopic European sources, has obscured not only the important role of these other places in the coffee trade but also the much more diverse nature of Mocha’s commercial ties. The Merchant Houses of Mocha seeks to recover these ties and their effects on Mocha’s urban shape during its “period of international renown” (4), that is, from 1650 to 1750 when the Qasimi imams of Yemen’s highland interior controlled the port after having ousted the Ottomans in 1635.

The book’s first two chapters situate Mocha within the political configuration of the imamate and the commercial networks that linked it to both the interior highlands and the wider maritime sphere. In regard to the latter, it is contended that even though Mocha functioned as a “strategic hinge point where the peripheries of the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean worlds converged” (17), the period under consideration marks a distinct break between these two realms. Taking up the notion of the “Jidda gap” proposed in earlier studies of the Red Sea trade, it is argued that the single trade circuit spanning from Egypt to western India disintegrated over the course of the eighteenth century, a division that elevated Jidda to the status of a major transhipment hub at which the two now separate systems intersected. While the northern sector was controlled politically by the Ottomans and dominated economically by Cairo’s merchants, the southern sector “opened up to Yemeni governance and Gujarati commercial preeminence” (21). This interpretation is crucial to the author’s subsequent examination of Mocha’s commercial institutions, in which she repeatedly highlights their difference to Mediterranean models while revealing their congruity to those typical across the western Indian Ocean. Although this is not made explicit, it must be this alignment that underlies Mocha’s designation as “an Indian Ocean port” in the book’s title, which stands as somewhat of a contradiction to the assertion made in the work’s...